The heavy shower, coming two months early, is unexpected. Vasudev Nikam, jostling amid the crowd waiting to hear Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar at Mudhol-Tikta, a small village in Kolhapur district of Maharashtra, 550 km south of Mumbai, is soaked. At 70, Nikam has been unwell lately, and fears coming down with bronchitis. But there is no question of his leaving. “I don’t care,” he says. “I cannot miss Pawarsaheb speaking in our village.”
When Pawar does arrive and begin his speech, he keeps it short. Instead of the usual 15 minutes, this lasts barely two. It is the usual spiel before an election, exhorting those gathered to vote for his local candidate. The crowd doesn’t mind.
Born: December 12, 1940
First elected MLA (on Congress ticket) to Maharashtra assembly in 1967
Since then has always been either an MLA or an MP till date
Broke away from Congress to form the Congress (Sharad) in 1978
Became Maharashtra Chief Minister for the first time with support of other Opposition parties
His government was
dismissed after Indira Gandhi’s return to power
Merged his party with Congress again in 1987
Became Maharashtra Chief Minister again in 1988
Was Union Defence Minister in Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet
Returned as Chief Minister for a third time in 1993
Quit Congress again in 1999 to form the NCP
Presently Union Agriculture Minister
Western Maharashtra, where Kolhapur is located — a fertile region, full of well-to-do farmers, producing an abundant crop of paddy and sugarcane — is the NCP’s bastion. And Pawar is Maharashtra’s tallest leader.
“So what if the speech was short?” says Nikam. “He did not want us to stand in the rain for long. Besides, he must have so many more rallies to address.”
Sure he does. At 69, Pawar has been maintaining a breakneck schedule of electioneering since the last week of March, addressing four to five rallies a day. He has already done over 60. “I enjoy it,” says Pawar. “I like visiting places and meeting people. I connect with them.”
He addressed four rallies on the day HT trailed him. He traveled by road in his black Audi SUV, with a large convoy of party functionaries and escort vehicles. He knows the region intimately, knows exactly what he should say where. At one meeting, a joke featuring popular actor Dada Kondke sets the mood. At another, he starts by recalling his own long association with the place. He never reads from a prepared text.
The rallies over, Pawar’s cavalcade retires to a Kolhapur hotel. Like all politicians, Pawar knows polls are not won by speeches alone. Large crowds at meetings may indicate support, but they are not enough to guarantee victory. At the hotel, Pawar embarks on an equally important component of any campaign: closed-door meetings with a succession of local leaders where he mollifies the angry, cuts deals in return for votes with key arbiters, tries to wean away disgruntled district level leaders of rival parties.
Western Maharashtra has always been a Pawar bastion. When he led the state Congress, it voted Congress; now that he is chief of the NCP, it votes NCP. In 2004, the party won both Kolhapur district seats.
But no election can be taken for granted. In one seat, the NCP has dropped sitting MP Sadashiv Mandlik for non-performance and awarded the ticket to Sambhaji Raje Bhonsale instead, the scion of a former Maratha king. Mandlik has promptly rebelled and is working against the official nominee. In the other seat, Hatkanangle, sitting MP Nivedita Mane has been renominated, but popular peasant leader Raju Shetty, contesting as an Independent, is giving her a tough fight.
How does Pawar cope with the strain? He shrugs. “I follow a strict diet regimen during campaigns. I take small meals, and nothing in between. I have stopped drinking tea. I only take water, plenty of it, and juices.”